[birders] Finding Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows in Michigan

Santner, Steven santners at karmanos.org
Thu Oct 14 10:27:17 EDT 2004

	Allen and others:

	In Pennsylvania when I lived there, the Sharp-tailed Sparrows (nearly all of which are Nelson's) were casual except for one site - the river islands in the lower Susquehanna River in the fall between about Oct 1-10 where they were regular every year (once we even found 13+ at one time!).  I suspect that the peak season in Michigan will be from Sept 25 - Oct 5.  These islands had most of the elements mentioned in your habitat description.  The main area was Purple Loosestrfe mostly with sedges and some other weedy plants.  The top of the plant layer was between 1-4 ft tall.  There was usually some water (up to 12 in deep) over the whole area so that high boots were required.  We just walked through slowly in groups of 3-5 at a time and usually they would pop up to the top of a bush briefly when flushed.  The other spot (less reliable) was a mostly sedge island with many fewer bushes and usually more water.  At both spots we usually found rails and bitterns also.  In Michigan, the two best Lower Peninsula sites which would be similar that I am aware of are the Arcadia marshes and the marshes around the St Clair River delta on Harsen's Is and on the mainland in St Clair Co.  One thing to keep in mind.  These are not usually places where you should go on your own.  There may be quicksand or really deep mud (several feet deep) which you may sink into rapidly and you need to have others around to pull you out.  Also, it is a help to have several people moving through these areas to spot birds.

	Steve Santner

-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Chartier [mailto:amazilia1 at comcast.net]
Sent: Thursday, October 14, 2004 10:02 AM
To: birders at umich.edu
Subject: [birders] Finding Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows in Michigan


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni) is listed as "Casual" on
Michigan's official bird checklist
(http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/rouge_river/Checklist.html ), meaning that it
is reported less than annually in the state, and any reports must be
reviewed and accepted by the Michigan Bird Records Committee before being
published in the seasonal Michigan Bird Survey, published in Michigan Birds
and Natural History, and summarized for North American Birds. That is, it is
on the state's "Review List."

The species is a rare, but annual fall migrant in Wisconsin, Illinois,
Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario, and does not appear on any of these Review
Lists. Most records from Michigan are also from the fall, but it is unclear
why Michigan has fewer reports of this species than all surrounding areas.
Perhaps we haven't learned where and how to find them?

In the past few years, birders in states and provinces surrounding Michigan
have learned when, where, and how to find this species, with the result that
small numbers are found each year in appropriate habitat. As a result of
querying birders in Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario (via chat groups IN-Bird,
Ohio-Birds, and ONTBIRDS), some interesting information was gathered.

Time of Year
Consistent with the Michigan records for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, late
September through mid-October is the migration period for this species in
the region.

Time of Day
Some suggest that early morning, and particularly the first hour after
sunrise, is best.

Weather Conditions
As with many fall migrants, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows seem to appear
following the passage of strong cold fronts.

There were some consistencies in habitat description, and some surprising
differences. The most consistent habitat characteristics seem to be weedy
fields near small ponds, the edges of cattail marshes (between the shore and
the cattails), or even bordering seasonally wet fields. The plants most
often mentioned in these fields include large stands of Smartweed (Polygonum
sp.) and Beggar-Ticks (Bidens sp.) where the vegetation is from knee high to
chest high. Other plants mentioned include Sedges (Scirpus sp., Carex sp.,
and Cyperus sp.), Bur-reed, Bulrush (Scirpus sp.), Rice Cutgrass, Barnyard
Grass (Echinocloa sp.), Indian Grass, Leersia, Cordgrass (Spartina
pectinata), Ditch Stonecrop (Penthorum sedoides), Cockleburs, Canary Grass
(Phalaris sp.), and Manna Grass (Glyceria sp.).

In Ontario, apparently the ideal conditions are where there is 2-10 inches
of standing water in these weedy fields, while in Ohio and Indiana water was
mentioned, but the sparrows have also been found in dry fields adjacent to

One respondent described the habitat in Wisconsin where he'd looked for this
species as a "wet industrial wasteland". This seems to fit the description
of the Lebanon Business Park northwest of Indianapolis, which I have
visited, although this site is actually a mitigation wetland. In early
September, there were lots of Song and Savannah Sparrows in the habitat, and
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows have been found there in the past two weeks.

All agree that this is a difficult and unpleasant habitat to walk through!

How birders find this species varies. In southeastern Michigan, in the 1950s
and 1960s, a rope was dragged over the fields to flush the sparrows (and
rarely Yellow Rails). If wading is required, often boots or even hip waders
have been required. Sometimes, groups of birders cooperate and walk abreast
through the fields, flushing the birds. In all areas, single birders can
sometimes flush birds just by walking briskly through the habitat. Pishing
once they're flushed seems to work well for brief views of perched birds,
but they may be more difficult to flush a second time.

In Flight Identification
A good tip is provided by Ron Pittaway of Ontario in the October 1997 issue
of OFO News (OFO News Vol. 15, No. 3, pg. 6). Ron suggests that Swamp and
Song Sparrows will flush with an undulating flight as they pump their longer
tails. Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows [and I suspect LeConte's which can
occur in similar habitat] are chunkier, grayer, and fly on a straight plane
with no pumping of their shorter tails. Sometimes, birds have been known to
perch in nearby cattails or on top of the sedges, providing opportunities to
study field marks in greater detail.

Good Luck!  And, remember, if you find one of these birds, take a photo, or
take very detailed notes!

I'd like to thank the following people for responding to this inquiry:

Mike Busam (OH)
cdvdaguilar at aol.com (ON)
Roger Hedge (IN)
Lynea Hinchman (IN)
Ed Hopkins (IN)
Ned Keller (IN)
Paul Mackenzie (ON)
Clint Murray (IN)
Karl Overman (MI)
Ron Pittaway (ON)
John Pogacnik (OH)
Paul Rossi (MI)
Bill Watson (NY)
Alan Wormington (ON)

Allen Chartier
amazilia1 at comcast.net
1442 West River Park Drive
Inkster, MI  48141
Website: http://www.amazilia.net
Michigan HummerNet: http://www.amazilia.net/MIHummerNet/index.htm

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